Blogging through Truth and Method post 7: Dilthey's Entanglement in the Aporias of Historicism (218-241)

The section of Truth and Method that contains this chapter is called “Historical Preparations,” and one of the oddities of blogging about it is that I’m writing about an entire section dedicated to a philosopher I’d not heard about until I’d read this book. Wilhelm Dilthey is a post-Hegelian German philosopher whose written works were published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Gadamer uses his work to illustrate the limits of nineteenth-century historicist approaches with regards to questions of hermeneutics.

Dilthey and Epistemology

Most discussions of epistemology that I’ve witnessed start with the core binary of empiricism and rationalism. The merits and shortcomings of each are well-known: empiricism has a strong track record of predictive power but does not really explain anything, while rationalism tends to be quite strong in terms of logical validity but, in spite of being utterly logical, sometimes fails to account for the real phenomena that human beings encounter in the world of matter. Dilthey, in approaching the philosophical history, attempts to bring the Romantic brand of rationalism, a philosophy of history that posits a central governing Reason about which history revolves; into conversation with history’s own brand of Empiricism, the “tell the past how the past was” mentality most often associated with Leopold von Ranke (218).

Gadamer notes, before digging too deeply into Dilthey’s synthesis, that epistemology itself does not become central to professional philosophy until, after the Enlightenment, philosophy’s basic assumption of “the correspondence between logos and being was finally destroyed” (220). As with biological science, history becomes not a problem of being but a problem of knowledge if, in fact, the same divine mind does not put both the historical event and the historical human being into play. Historians, in the newly-disconnected space between event and perception, can write somewhat reliably about what they perceive (even that gets questioned as psychology develops as a science), but without that correspondence there’s no guarantee that any given historian is doing something that transcends solipsism (221).  Dilthey’s Romantic moves thus make most sense in their own historical moment, as reactions to the modern split between the metaphysics of creation and the psychology of the human person.

Dilthey’s approach to that split is to regard the human knower as himself part of the “world” being studied: “What makes historical knowledge possible is the homogeneity of subject and object” (222).  Dilthey’s explorations therefore have to do with the structures of reality that bridge the gap between consciousness and the operations of the world surrounding the human consciousness (223).  Ultimately Gadamer does not find Dilthey’s philosophy satisfactory, as he does not account thoroughly enough for the recursive character of historical knowing, the reality that the person who knows history is at the same time configured by history, and therefore any act of knowing is itself a historical event.  That said, Dilthey for Gadamer seems not so much a model as the apex of the Enlightenment/Romantic attempt to make the human sciences into extensions of the natural sciences, and the neglect of the dialectics of knowledge is precisely what remained for other thinkers to treat more adequately.

Dilthey and Hermeneutics

There are ways in which Dilthey points beyond the Enlightenment dilemma, though, and his focus on Life as the core of philosophy is one such pointer.  Insofar as Dilthey posits life as a comprehensive principle for thought, he steps beyond the impasse:

For [Dilthey] significance is not a logical concept, but is to be understood as an expression of life.  Life itself, flowing temporality, is ordered toward the formation of enduring units of significance.  Life interprets itself.  Life itself has a hermeneutical structure.  Thus life constitutes the real ground of the human sciences.  Hermeneutics is not a romantic heritage in Dilthey’s thinking, but follows from the fact that philosophy is grounded in “life.” (226)

Dilthey’s concept of historical consciousness specifically begins to move towards something more holistic than the concept of the detached scientific knower regarding the world; because the historical knower is Life just as the objects of historical story are historical Life, historical consciousness to a great extent is life-understanding-world (229).  Thus “historical consciousness replaces metaphysics” (230) and opens the way towards a self-conscious search for truth.

To expand knowledge and the search for truth beyond the accidental preferences and prejudices that one inherits in the course of Life is not to discard those early formative forces but to transcend them (233).  For Dilthey, who remains the heir of the Enlightenment, such transcendence still comes through properly applied scientific methods (233), but in his own philosophy he points towards such a solution rather than articulating how method might connect the finite historian to the universal spirit of history (234).  Dilthey’s focus on Life as the core of things means that he still regards the possibilities of historical knowledge to a large extent as expanded forms of self-knowledge (235), and even though Gadamer finds the existentialists more helpful for exploring the contours of that sort of knowledge, he does give Dilthey credit for recognizing the problem.

This section of Truth and Method shows nicely the complexity that stands before the science of hermeneutics: once the Enlightenment happens, any attempt to imagine pre-Enlightenment thought is itself a post-Enlightenment exercise, and attempts to situate the Enlightenment’s knowing subject in a larger context, whether Geist or Life, does not in a simple way re-state Thomist or Augustinian ontology but appropriates such resources as post-Enlightenment helpers.  The same, of course, goes for any powerful intellectual system, so that historically-aware philosophy of any sort is going to stand in relationship to the most powerful movements before it.  As Gadamer wraps up his survey of Enlightenment/Romantic approaches to questions of human sciences, the singular contribution that he notes, and which makes the twentieth century’s great departures intelligible, is the nineteenth century’s insistence upon regarding history as a continuous text, something that demands and allows interpretation (241).  The reality that the knower, the known, the knowledge articulated and the potential for knowing all stand as continuous networks of relationship is what sets the stage for Heidegger’s grand turn to Dasein, which the next section will explore.

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